The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced yesterday the Trump administration's first significant guidance concerning autonomous vehicles and Automated Driving Systems (ADS).

The new voluntary guidelines, titled Automated Driving Systems: A Vision for Safety, are intended to encourage innovation in the industry and are being touted as the administration's "new, non-regulatory approach to promoting the safe testing and development of automated vehicles." One of the most important aspects of these guidelines is the NHTSA's clarification of its view of the delineation between the roles of the states and the federal government with respect to ADS technology.

The new guidelines replace the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy (FAVP), which was released by the Obama administration in 2016. A Vision for Safety comprises voluntary guidance for vehicle manufacturers, best practices for state legislatures when drafting ADS legislation, and a request for further comment.

Autonomous-vehicle manufacturers are asked to undertake a voluntary self-assessment addressing 12 safety elements discussed in the new guidance. That is a slight departure from the FAVP, which detailed a 15-point safety assessment. The safety self-assessment remains voluntary, and NHTSA emphasizes that there is no mechanism to compel manufacturers to participate. The agency also stated that the testing or deployment of new ADS technologies need not be delayed to complete a self-assessment.

In what may be the most significant component of the guidance, NHTSA made clear its role as the primary regulator of ADS technology by "strongly encourage[ing] States not to codify th[e] Voluntary Guidance . . . as a legal requirement for any phases of development, testing, or deployment of ADSs."

Further acknowledging the potential problems associated with a patchwork of state laws, the agency expressed its belief that "[a]llowing NHTSA alone to regulate the safety design and performance aspects of ADS technology will help avoid conflicting Federal and State laws and regulations that could impede deployment." States are instead tasked by A Vision for Safety with regulating licensing of human drivers, motor vehicle registration, traffic laws, safety inspections, and insurance.

The new guidance comes just one week after the House of Representatives passed the SELF-DRIVE Act designed to eliminate legal obstacles that could interfere with the deployment of autonomous vehicles. However, as NHTSA and Congress are seeking to speed up ADS development by removing regulatory and legal impediments, it is noteworthy that on the same day NHTSA announced A Vision for Safety, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for NHTSA to require automakers to install "system safeguards to limit the use of automated vehicle systems to those conditions for which they were designed."

In an abstract of its forthcoming final report on the 2016 fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S operating in semi-autonomous mode, the NTSB concluded that "operational limitations" in the Tesla's system played a major role in the fatal crash and that the vehicle's semi-autonomous system lacked the safeguards necessary to ensure that the system was not misused. These recent developments only underscore the uncertainty facing the industry as regulators attempt to keep pace with fast-developing technology.

Ballard Spahr's Product Liability and Mass Tort Group has substantial experience defending automotive companies in product liability and consumer class-action litigation, counseling companies on regulatory and risk management issues associated with the development and sale of motor vehicles, and developing cyber security and data-privacy protections.


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